On Being Selfish: Is It All About Me?

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

I often tell patients that the word “selfish” is given a bad name. We are taught from childhood that it is best to share. We are also taught that it is better to give than to receive. However, a study at the University of Pennsylvania says otherwise. What they found was that people feel good when they are selfish. Before you decide to selfishly do every thing for your self it’s important to be aware of a caveat that comes with the findings in the study. The fact is that behaving selfishly only feels good if it is not accompanied by guilt. In other words, guilt is a big obstacle to being selfish.

According to the dictionary, being selfish is defined as caring only about one’s self without regard to the needs of others. It is akin to being like the mythical character, Narcissus, staring lovingly at his reflection in a lake after having rejected a beautiful girl who loved him. That is where the word narcissism comes from. It means having self-love without regard for the feelings and dignity of other people. The Judeo-Christian heritage teaches us that we must have regard for the needs of other people. That is why, when we act selfishly, we feel a strong sense of guilt. In other words, acting selfishly violates a deeply held value of the Western World.


On the other hand, there is something to be said for narcissism or selfishness. Even the great founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, stated that before we can give to others, we must give to ourselves. According to this line of thinking, we must see to our own needs first or we will be too drained and empty to give to others. How many women miss this important point? They are taught from early childhood onwards to suppress their needs while putting others first. She must put her husband, children and family first or she is not fulfilling her feminine role. Of course, much of this seems to have changed since feminist movement of the late 20th century. As a result, women can work and have careers. Yet, they still feel enormous pressure to be mothers and wives first and have enormous guilt if the roles of wife and mother are not neglected.

In psychotherapy, I have worked with many women who are depressed because they feel drained and frustrated from giving while not receiving. For example, it is common for wives to say nothing when their husbands spend the weekend playing golf instead of helping at home. In order to keep the family intact they say nothing for fear that the kids could suffer the loss of an intact home if their father leaves the family. In the end this strategy does not work and the marriage ends in divorce. That is one reason why we have a more than 50% rate of divorce. Men need to be less selfish by helping with the kids and taking over some household chores. Women need to be more selfish so that their needs are met and this can only happen if their men help out. Women must also realize that they have a right to care for their own needs.

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So, remember, all of us need a certain amount of selfishness or narcissism in order to be able to share with and give to other people. Selfishness is not all bad.

Your comments and opinions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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